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Food banks in Canada: A great debate

By: | December 20, 2011

Are food banks really the solution? Or part of the problem?

Laura Nelson-Hamilton
Supply and Demand will focus on food security, local foods, eating healthy, occasional recipes, agricultural/growing how-to's, etc...

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As I devour the season’s ‘Best’ lists (for albums, books, one-liners, etc), I’m left to consider the best things I’ve stumbled upon this year that are related to food. I could list my favourite meals, but they would surely be wrapped in sentiment and I fear any elaboration would cause some of you to gag. I could list the year’s best produce, which overcame difficult growing conditions early on (hot peppers from Mt. Scio Farm, anyone?!), or a number of food security initiatives (such as new community gardens, a creative community kitchen, and restaurant success stories), but try as I might to pen descriptive words, my mind saunters back to an article that I read this summer. While it most likely conveys more to you about my own interests and perspectives than it does about the province’s edible offerings and community organizing efforts, the article in question stands out to me because it is one that facilitated several interesting and important conversations this year.

Best food security-related thought piece of 2011

Under the category “Best Food Security-Related Thought Piece of 2011”, I would like to acknowledge Elaine Power’s “It’s Time to Close Canada’s Food Banks”, which was published in the Globe and Mail on July 25, 2011. Elaine Power is a professor of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, and is cross-appointed to Cultural Studies as well as Gender Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Throughout her career she has focused on poverty, food, and health and also served as a volunteer and board member at food banks. Her writing, then, is informed by her research and (perhaps not separate) personal experiences.

I offer the article up to you due to its compelling remarks about one of our nation’s main and widely-known efforts to ensure that all people at all times have access to food. To be sure, a food bank is a place where food is donated and provided to those who need it, free of charge. The first food bank in Canada is said to have been established in Edmonton, Alberta in 1981. Responding to poverty-related food insecurity became popular as similar food banks were established throughout the country in the 1980’s. It is estimated that 28,642 people were assisted by food banks in Newfoundland and Labrador during the month of March, 2011.

“But first we have to remove the obstacle that food banks have become.” (Elaine Power, Queen’s University)

Power wastes no time in getting to her point. She opens her article with a hard-hitting: “Food banks have become a serious obstacle in the fight against poverty. By promising to “end hunger” by feeding hungry Canadians, they provide a comforting illusion that no one is hungry – or if they are, it’s their own fault. They shelter us from the harsh reality that millions lack the basic necessities of life.” She goes on to argue that food banks cannot end hunger, that many hungry persons do not utilize them due to a sense of shame in receiving handouts, and that even those who do seek out food bank services often go hungry as a result of short or tightly managed supplies. Power also notes that, despite the intentions and energies of those who volunteer and work at food banks, these organizations are band-aids rather than solutions to the issues from which hunger extends.

“Food banks can never solve the problem of poverty. It’s time to hold our governments accountable to their obligation to ensure that all Canadians have a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. Giving food to those who are hungry is a simple response that everyone supports. Tackling poverty means wrestling with diverse ideas about causes and solutions. It’s time to begin that political conversation. But first we have to remove the obstacle that food banks have become.”

A conversation that needs to happen

I selected this article precisely because it facilitated the types of conversations that Power hoped it would. The article was shared over food security e-mail listervs, response papers were written by food banks in various parts of the country, as well as food security analysts. During discussions with coworkers, colleagues and friends, I witnessed and participated in conversations that focused on systemic causes of poverty, the value of social and economic supports, and the ways in which food bank services could be augmented in order to respond to poverty as something that is more complicated than hunger. In re-considering the article and its impact, I now question where these conversations lead us. Since poverty cannot be solved through food bank donations, perhaps it is important to consider the ways in which Power’s assertions cause one to realize that independent actions, such as donating food, talking about these issues, or participating in democratic decision-making on election day alone (by voting) leave us in a position where we come up short, time and again, even if we seek to help those in need. While many Canadians may see the value of responding to poverty and hunger, many do not. This seems to be part of the story about the persistence of these issues across the country.

I found Power’s article to be somewhat challenging, and it raised a number of questions that I continue to think about. For one, if we were to close food banks, what would immediate alternatives be? Second, is this written to all Canadians, or those who are donating and volunteering their time? Does it rely on the idea that all Canadians are willing to give, and seeking to end inequality? While one side of Power’s discussion seems to rely on an idea that “no one wants to see Canadians go hungry”, it is more likely the case that ”we” are not all donating to food banks as it is. Finally, let’s say, hypothetically, that all food banks were closed tomorrow. Would it actually create a stronger case for anti-poverty work, or would it push the issue farther out of sight? Power’s article reads as a passionate and frustrated response to a long-examined topic, but there are many more questions to ask before abandoning the cause.

In the article, food banks are depicted as organizations that accept themselves as solutions to hunger and poverty, but Food Banks Canada does more than call on Canadians to donate to or volunteer at related organizations in order to respond to these issues. In Hunger Count 2011, they note: “The need for food banks in Canada will not decrease significantly without a change in the status quo.” Their seven point action plan on ending poverty and diminishing the need for food banks includes the following policy recommendations:

1) Invest in affordable housing
2) Improve social assistance
3) Protect Canada’s most vulnerable seniors
4) Update employment insurance
5) Support disadvantaged workers
6) Invest in early learning and child care
7) Maintain a strong Canada Social Transfer

Detailed explanations about these measures may be found from pages 12-16 within the document.

Reflections during a holiday season

During a season that is marked, for some, by acts of giving, in a country that is experiencing a widening gap between rich and poor, learning more about some of the pros and cons of food banks is a timely and important activity. If you are seeking to help those in need this season, a donation to a food bank will certainly not go astray. Reports on food bank usage are undeniably as compelling as Power’s article, as the figures below clearly show.

According to Food Banks Canada, over 900,000 Canadians utilize food banks each year. In March 2011:

• 93,000 people each month access a food bank for the first time
• 38% of those turning to food banks are children and youth
• 7% of adults helped are over age 65
• 10% of people assisted are Aboriginal
• 52% of households helped receive social assistance
• 18% have income from current or recent employment
• 13% receive disability-related income supports
• 35% of food banks ran out of food during the survey period
• 55% of food banks needed to cut back on the amount of food provided to each household

These statistics indicate the challenges that food banks face with regard to meeting recipients’ food needs. The persistence of social inequality on the basis of ethnicity, disability, and age are also highlighted.

Just as food banks continue to exist, so too does a need for them within our communities. It seems to me that the challenge before us is to help when and where we can, and to consider these issues year round. Perhaps the very best thing is to acknowledge the shortcomings of our responses, and the imperfections in our offerings. Indeed, these are helpful actions, but these are not solutions. Power’s article incites us to reflect more deeply about what it is we are giving, and why we respond to poverty in this way. A well-informed response may follow: learn more about the needs and services that exist in your community, vote, push for policies that will make systemic and lasting changes within your society, and never let your left hand see what your right hand is giving.

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